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See better with colour tinted spectacles

By Colette Sheridan

Though she tried her best, Megan Woods always found learning to read and spell a real struggle.

Then last year, the 8-year-old North York girl received a "
gifted'' result in a school screening test. That spurred her mother Nancy Woods, who says she always knew Megan was bright, to find out why she didn't share her mother's love affair with the printed word.

"As a child I just loved to read and after Megan started school it was hard to think she was missing out on that kind of joy,'' says Woods, an investment adviser.

She spent several weeks researching reading handicaps and literacy problems which led to Megan being tested for a somewhat controversial perceptual condition called Irlen syndrome, also known as scotopic sensitivity.

Megan's test, done by a specialist in the field, came back positive.

What normal people see as text on a page appears quite differently to people with the problem, experts in the syndrome say. A page of print may seem blurry, surrounded by a halo or look as if it's separated by rivers of white space.

This can cause headaches, teary eyes and a host of other symptoms that make schoolwork difficult.

Sufferers use colored overlays placed on reading material or special glasses which are believed to filter the spectrum of light as it enters the brain, allowing them to better process visual information.

However, some visual specialists and educators doubt the research and theory behind the condition, making it a controversial diagnosis. It is still largely unknown in much of Canada.

Megan's treatment first involved using colored overlays. Now she uses a pair of colored glasses and says the results are amazing.

"The words don't jump off the page any more,'' she says. "Things look clear (and) it is easier for me to read and write now.''

Megan's mother was initially "very skeptical'' about the condition but says when she watched her daughter get tested "as soon as they put the colored overlays on Megan perked right up and said, 'That's it!' ''

Irlen diagnosticians say it is a lifelong perceptual handicap, which usually shows up acutely in early elementary school. The high contrast between the black type and white page in a book, for example, is especially difficult for many Irlen sufferers, they say.

The initial screening test costs about $150 and if the syndrome is confirmed, it costs about an additional $600 to be fitted with prescription filters and to have them made in California and delivered to you. Those lenses can then be taken to an optician and fitted into regular eyeglass frames.

So far, none of this is covered by health insurance or extended health benefits because it has yet to be recognized as a legitimate medical condition. Some municipalities have covered the cost of the lenses for people on social assistance and some school boards, parent groups or community charities have also helped in specific cases.

Optometrist Cathy Chiarelli, chief of clinical services at the Vision Institute of Canada, doesn't totally endorse the theory behind the syndrome, which is viewed with skepticism by many professionals. The institute is a charitable research, education and testing centre run largely by the Ontario optometrists' association.

However, she says research does back up some of the theory behind the condition. For example, there are in fact two vision pathways of cells in the brain - one of which can be affected by blue light filters.

One is the brain's "sustained vision'' pathway - when the eyes fixate on something and look for bright color and detail. The other is the "transient vision'' pathway - when the eyes are detecting movement or low contrast visual information or when they must move from one fixed object or word to another. Research has shown trouble with this transient system can cause perception problems, which the blue filters help, Chiarelli says.

Adel Francis is a diagnostician at the Irlen Centre in Ottawa, the biggest centre in Ontario. People with the syndrome can also have trouble with depth perception and working under fluorescent lights, she says.

By using colored filters to selectively change the specific wavelengths of light entering the eye, the brain can process the information more effectively, she says. Irlen treatment uses many combinations of colors in filters tailored to each individual to co-ordinate the brain's two visual pathway systems.

Francis says before screening for Irlen syndrome everyone should get a complete eye exam and vision screening to rule out other conditions that may cause similar reading troubles, or exist at the same time as Irlen.

Chiarelli says using colored filters other than blue just "doesn't make sense'' according to current research.

Most people don't realize there are many types of vision problems that can affect reading, she says. Besides vision problems like far-sightedness, near- sightedness or astigmatisms, a child could have a host of visual co-ordination or perception problems that only a trained specialist can discover.

Scott Irwin, a 30-year-old assistant manager at a Metro photo store, was tested for Irlen syndrome and also strongly endorses the treatment. For years he was told he was a slow learner and reader but using the Irlen colored overlays has really helped, he says.

"Without them, it's kind of like having to look into the glare of a car's headlights at night when I'm reading. The contrast is so extreme.''

Irlen syndrome was identified in the early 1980s by California educational psychologist Helen Irlen, who linked reading problems to an oversensitivity to, and problems processing, the light spectrum. She has patented her treatment and people who use it must be certified through the Irlen Institute of Perceptual Development in California.

Though Irlen experts say about 10 per cent of the population has the syndrome, Chiarelli says others think it might be more like 2 or 3 per cent.

You can contact the Irlen Centre at (613) 230-3995. The Vision Institute can be reached at (416) 224-2273.

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